Ralph Larmann

Art Department

University of Evansville

back to: Chapter 13

Chapter 14: Christian Art: From Catacombs to Cathedrals

Head of Constantine
Late Roman sculpture
c. 300 AD

Basilica of Constantine
Late Roman architecture
c. 300 AD

Emperor Justinian and Attendants
tile mosaic
540-547 A.D.

Hagia Sophia
537 A.D.


Christianity was a sect of Judaism. Because it is a messianic offshoot which believes that God came to earth in the guise of his Son, Jesus, there is a recognized visual form of God as Man. This allowed for images of "God" to be made in the likeness of Jesus. Visual forms became important in the development of the Christian Church.

Origen and Clement of Alexandria debated the issue of visual imagery in the Christian Church in the 3rd Century. Most of the resolutions which grew out of these debates regarded painting as being more appropriate for the Church. This was because painting was only an illusion of two-dimensional space and thus not a true representation of three-dimensional reality.

-Early Christian period-@ 33-400 AD. Constantine made it acceptable with the Edict of Milan 313 AD, which stated that Rome would tolerate all religions
-Byzantine period-@ 400-1300, when Roman leadership moved to East

-ichthus- fish symbol used by early Christians who worshipped in secret.
-a favorite theme was "Christ as the Good Shepherd" which was camouflaged as Hermes Criophorus, a Roman god image, in the early days during Christian persecution.
-catacombs-sacred burial areas where Romans would not pursue Christians
-Christians would draw the ichthus symbol near their meeting places in the catacombs so that others could find them.
-The Chi Rho was a symbol using the first two letters of Christ's name (in Greek). It became a symbol of Constantine's victory.

-used as public gathering places for large groups of Christians after the Edict of Milan.
-Made up of the following areas:

  • Apse-the sanctuary area where the altar was located
  • Transept-a section that crosses the main section
  • Nave-the central open area leading from the front door to the apse
  • Aisle-placed on the sides leading toward the front
  • Narthex-open area just before entering nave
  • Atrium-from the Roman house, it is a foyer or receiving area near the entrance

Churches from this era had the apse end of the church facing east so that it would be illuminated in the morning during the Mass (worship service)

Old St. Peter's-Rome, Early Christian basilica, 333-390
-large Early Christian basilica, not to be confused with a Roman basilica, which was used for non-religious purposes.


San Vitale-540-547 AD, Ravenna, Italy, brick facing
-centrally planned
-decorated with mosaics and marble
-gold was used in mosaics
-tiles slightly cocked to help illuminate interior

mosaics -were made up of small pieces of ceramic called tesserae

The Court of Justinian and the Court of Theodora-apse mosaics,
-the Holy Roman Emperor Justinian and his wife is placed at the center with attendants on either side.
-this was placed in the apse at the front of the worshippers
-made up of many tiny tiles

Hagia Sophia-Constantinople, 537 AD,
-large dome supported by buttresses
-pendentives used in corners, transitions between square and round
-minarets (Islamic prayer towers) were added later.

-were a vital link in progression from the Roman to the Renaissance world.

Illuminated Manuscripts
-copied Biblical texts that were done in scriptoria in Celtic monasteries
-designs and icons arranged in a pattern
-done on vellum, a high quality calfskin parchment
-parchment is made from thin pieces of animal hide
-codex-manuscipt book

Carolingian Period (under King Charlemagne-Holy Roman Empire)
-monasteries were places where monks lived and worked
-Classical revival occurred during this period. This was a revival of ideas about science, art, music, mathematics, language, etc. Somewhat like Ancient Athens, Greece.

The Last Judgement
French Romanesque
relief sculpture in tympanum
1130 A.D., Conques, France


-stylistic name, not historical period
-it means: "like Roman architecture"
-because of the rise of feudalism there began to be some stability in the European governments and economies during the 11th C.
-most art from this time is church-centered because the only central "ruling" body was the Pope
-most people were illiterate
-used altarpieces done as triptychs
-reliquaries were found in pilgrimage churches

-Romanesque architects had to build large churches to accommodate pilgrims
-load-bearing walls
-small windows (not much light )
-sculptural additions (not naturalistic)

Sainte-Foy at Conques, in So. France, c. 1050-1120
-ambulatory so that monks could be undisturbed as pilgrims visited relics
-used radiating chapels as places to stop and pray while visiting
-used stone vaults, like Romans-helped acoustics for Gregorian chants
-used groin vaulting in side bays
-relief carvings in tympanum

-relief images were carved in portals (entry ways)
-at Sainte-Foy at Conques there is a large relief called the "Last Judgment"
-the capitals on columns had ornate carving
-sculptural jambs were used along the sides of entries, usually figures

Chartres Cathedral
French Gothic
1140-50 A.D.

French Gothic
relief sculpture door jambs
13th Century


-primarily an architectural term
-term originally used to denigrate the style by associating it with the Goths
-invented by Abbot Suger for use at the Church of Saint-Denis, north of Paris
-This church was the place that French kings were buried
-used harmonies and musical ratios

Saint-Denis (Notre Dame de Saint-Denis), begun 1137,
-first Gothic cathedral
-invented to use light and show an upward thrust
-the architecture was invented to influence and uplift the occupants
-used pointed arches-a variation on the vault which allowed for more upward motion, flying buttresses-exterior support structures which take the weight off the walls allowing for more windows, and stained glass windows-colored glass in mosaic style

Chartres Cathedral (Notre Dame de Chartres), 1134-1220, 40 miles SW of Paris
-large church which took approximately 100 years to build
-built on a high spot for great visibility
-number of sculptural reliefs on surface, becoming more naturalistic
-extreme height of interior, 3 stories
-uses a rose window over each entry
-Flying buttresses were used to open up window space

Amiens Cathedral, interior and Rheims sculptures

Notre Dame de Paris

Next study guide: Chapter 15

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